Belfast’s Titanic Museum: Dark Tourism and Northern Irish Elegy


Rowan Gillespie's sculpture Titanica in front of Titanic BelfastThe opening of Belfast’s Titanic Museum in April 2012 has been hailed as a sign of cultural and commercial renaissance in the region. However, some have called this an example of “dark tourism,” of fascination with the dead. Naomi Marklew, who recently completed her PhD on Northern Irish Elegy, considers the ways in which poets have responded to Northern Ireland’s attempts to build a tourist industry around the themes of trouble and tragedy. 

An article on a Canadian website declares that “Beautiful, resilient Northern Ireland welcomes the world.” A Belfast Telegraph headline proclaims ‘Suddenly the world wants to visit Northern Ireland.’ This conveys both pride in the cultural renewal that the region has experienced in recent years and a sense of surprise that the global tourist market has only just caught on. The most recent, shining example of this is the new Titanic museum.

It’s interesting that Belfast’s memorial to the Titanic opened its doors to mark the centenary of the disaster, especially when many places with weaker links to the ship and its sinking have had Titanic visitor centres for many years.  However, it might not be surprising to some that the tragic historical event has been commemorated in a tourist attraction.  While the museum might bring a promise of revitalisation to Belfast, it could also be seen as a reminder of the many tragedies suffered by the city in the past hundred years. Coincidentally, April 2012 also saw the University of Central Lancashire launching its Institute for Dark Tourism Research: research into travel to sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre. Dr Philip Stone, the Institute’s Executive Director, shares his thoughts on the ‘touristification’ of the Titanic:

The cultural fabric of Belfast will forever be entwined with the Titanic. Yet, as the disaster begins its journey into history, and with entrenched popular culture depictions of the tragedy, the heritage industry is finding new ways to both commemorate and commercialise the event. Arguably, some might call this blurred line between memorialisation and the visitor economy ‘dark tourism’. What is clear, however, is that the touristification of the Titanic reconnects visitors with the past and helps the Titanic dead remain alive in the memoryscape of a city that has so often been divided. Moreover, new Titanic visitor attractions, exhibitions and events in Belfast can mediate to the contemporary tourist a period of social inequality, tales of human error, the dominance of Mother Nature, as well as accounts of villainy and heroism. It is here that dark tourism can shine a light on a tragic event that still resonates with not only the people of Belfast, but also the wider world.

The commemoration of tragic events in Belfast’s past is not a new concept. The latter half of the twentieth century saw an eruption of civil conflict, often referred to as the Troubles, as centuries-long antagonisms were provoked. Unionists, loyal to the British crown, who were predominantly from a Protestant background, opposed the largely Catholic Nationalists. On both sides, paramilitary groups carried out brutal acts of violence which meant that terrible losses were suffered by the Northern Irish community as a whole.

For a number of Northern Ireland’s poets, particularly those of a younger generation, Belfast’s response to the aftermath of the civil trauma of the last century seems to have been to make the city’s troubled history into an opportunity to attract tourists. As part of my PhD research into Northern Irish elegiac poetry, I looked at some responses to the perceived commercialisation of Belfast in the work of some modern Northern Irish poets.

Sinead Morrissey’s poem, “Tourism,” displays a mixture of grief and anger at the painful history through which Belfast has lived, and which it now seems to sell as a cultural experience:

                   […]We take them to those streets
they want to see most, at first,

as though it’s all over and safe behind bus glass
like a staked African wasp.  Unabashedly, this is our splintered city…

The speaker’s bitter tone seems directed at her own people, rather than at the tourists. Later in the poem she refers to Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the establishment of which effectively saw the end of the Troubles, and the birth of the new Northern Ireland that opened opportunities for tourism: “Our talent for holes that are bigger / than the things themselves / resurfaces at Stormont, our week-kneed parliament…” Having said this, the tone at the end of the poem seems to mock the European visitors that it purports to welcome: “So come, keep coming here.” “Diffuse the gene pool, confuse the local kings, / infect us with your radical ideas…”

Most powerful, perhaps, is Alan Gillis’s poem “Progress“:

They say that for years Belfast was backwards
and it’s great now to see some progress.
So I guess we can look forward to taking boxes
from the earth.  I guess that ambulances
will leave the dying back amidst the rubble
to be explosively healed.  Given time,
one hundred thousand particles of glass
will create impossible patterns in the air
before coalescing into the clarity
of a window.  Through which, a reassembled head
will look out and admire the shy young man
taking his bomb from the building and driving home.

The opening sentence of the poem comments sardonically on “They,” the people who make glib remarks about Belfast’s ‘progress’.  The ensuing poem might be read as a sarcastic undermining of the initial remark: “it’s great now to see some progress.”  The violence in the image of a bomb explosion, stated in brutal detail, provides a stark reminder of the trauma experienced during the Troubles. Many Northern Irish elegies give such shocking details, in what might be an attempt by the poets to come to terms with the events that have taken place over the past decades. In Gillis’s poem, this seems to be a reaction against commentators whose optimism is in danger of denying the extent of the horror that resulted from the Troubles.

While completing my chapter on this generation of poets, I travelled to Belfast to interview a number of them.  Before I had even arrived, I read in my in-flight magazine the following comments from the television presenter Graham Little:

I am amazed at some people’s perception of Belfast.  The Troubles finished a long time ago.  It actually has a very low crime rate, and there’s a terrific buzz.  The Troubles now need to be seen by Belfast as a tourist opportunity.  I think we could do much more on that.  If nothing else, it helps to reinforce the idea that it’s all in the past. […] The murals are totems to the problems we’ve had in the past, but I think they have a positive part to play in the city’s future.  They are fascinating in their own way, and having been symbols of division and misery for years, they may as well now make money for people of both sides as a tourist attraction.

I brought this up with the poet Leontia Flynn, who commented that:

I took a black taxi tour ten years ago because a friend of a friend was coming over who’d never been here.

The tours go to the Shankill and the Falls in a black taxi, and they show you the murals, and it was kind of jaw-dropping […] “Here’s the murals, and here’s where the names of the people who were going to be shot were put up.” And at the same time there was something quite bizarrely authentic as well, because once we got back to the Falls, the taxi drivers heaved this huge sigh of relief, because this was actually their more normal turf. […]It does seem a bit sick, I suppose, in some ways.  But the kind of rampant commercialism of it all is much weirder to me – the whole sense in which they are like “what do we do to get people to come in?  We will build a MASSIVE shopping centre!”

Having said that, Flynn considered the positive impacts of such efforts to revitalise the city:

And then at the same time you go there, and it has had a huge impact on the city centre, and there’s a sense in which young people seem to be very confident and well-groomed, in a way they never were. […] And there’s also the fact that people are lured by these supposed tourist attractions – which of course are rubbish – I mean, you kind of feel embarrassed for the tourists… But it’s all better than people blowing each other up isn’t it? So, I mean my sour grapes are a bit silly, really. You just kind of go, “yeah, it’s all better, people have a much better deal” and that’s the thing to focus on, I guess.

Flynn’s “Belfast” contains the lines “Belfast is finished and Belfast is under construction”; “A tourist pamphlet contains an artist’s impression // of arcades, mock-colonnades, church-spires and tapas bars.”

While black taxi tours to the Shankill and the Falls might quite easily be classified as dark tourism, and treated with the sense of unease expressed by Flynn, the Titanic Museum is a completely different expression, even a celebration of Belfast’s history.  A BBC article on the museum’s opening noted that “Northern Ireland has battled hard to change its international image. It wants to be known across the globe for tourism rather than terrorism.” Significantly, the commemoration of the Titanic centenary in Belfast has seen politicians from across the political spectrum coming together and working in unison.

“Rather than emphasizing the violent and destructive elements of Belfast’s past, the celebration of Belfast’s ship-building heritage places the focus upon the city’s creative energies, and looks to the potential for future generations.”

While a museum which remembers a ship whose disastrous maiden voyage resulted in the loss of 1512 lives might seem to rank alongside other sites of “dark tourism,” it also signifies a cultural change in Belfast’s tourist industry.  Rather than emphasizing the violent and destructive elements of Belfast’s past, like the ones that were highlighted on Flynn’s black taxi tour, the celebration of Belfast’s ship-building heritage places the focus upon the city’s creative energies, and looks to the potential for future generations.

A museum that commemorates an historical disaster might unquestionably be identified as a site of dark tourism, and there may be a certain amount of morbid curiosity experienced by its visitors.  However, the Titanic Museum can simultaneously be appreciated as an emblem of cultural renewal and a celebration of Belfast’s industrial heritage.  The Titanic Museum, a cultural renaissance or dark tourism? As Philip Stone’s comments suggest, perhaps it’s a bit of both.

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